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IOSOT 2022

Time and Tense in Biblical Hebrew Narration, Description, Admonition, and Prediction

Metaphors that are connected to the notion of time constitute a coherent system in the conceptualization of human experience. Man exists in time and speaks of situations located in time by means of tenses. Cross linguistically, some metaphors depict time as moving towards man, others depict it as stationary and man as moving through it. 
In Biblical Hebrew and cognate Semitic languages the past is expressed as something that lies “in front” of man, while the future is located “behind”. Instead of man facing time, time is so to speak catching up from behind; and when it goes by, the past is visible in front of man, while the future being behind remains unseen. 
The biblical author, when translating this inner “landscape” into the linguistic categories of narration, had to chisel out the contrast between foreground and background and the distinction between telling the stream of events and showing ongoing activity. 
Dialogue, referring to what is actual and present at the point of speech, makes little use of these distinctions. Catchwords in biblical discourse are to a great extent hortatory, and consequently modal in character involving expressions of wish, obligation, permission, liability, and eventuality. 
However, all statements referring to the future are not modal. They are often predictive and thus real rather than potential – an observation that might explain why Biblical Hebrew predictive discourse employs the essentially non-modal weqatal as its leading form.

Website Mats Eskhult

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